Long-range state parks plan says camping at South Whidbey State Park a no-go

The trees will remain, overnight camping will not. That’s the verdict of state officials who have spent the past year working on a long-range plan that outlines the future of South Whidbey State Park, and other state park properties in Clinton and Useless Bay.

Washington State Parks’ Classification and Management Planning (CAMP) process is complete, and among the recommendations is to permanently transition the park’s approximately 20-acre campground to a day-use area only. The planning document also makes recommendations for the 54-acre Possession Point State Park and 560 acres of tidelands at Useless Bay: Possession will not be surplussed as originally planned, but the tidelands should be considered for transfer to another public agency.

Park officials will hold a public meeting next week on the recommendations and the planning process. It begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8, at Freeland Hall on East Shoreview Drive.

The CAMP plan won’t be official until it’s approved by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. It’s set for consideration at the board’s March 30 meeting in Auburn.

Randy Kline, an agency planner involved in the CAMP process, called the overnight camping decision at the 347-acre park a “really tough community discussion.” In the end, it came down to two choices: close the campgrounds permanently or clearcut the area.

“What came out of that effort was that we would need to remove all the trees to camp there,” Kline said.

Seasonal camping at the park has been closed since May, 2015 due to tree rot; officials believe it represents a significant safety issue. Clearing the entire campground, which would include old growth trees, is to clear the entire area, which would lead to windthrow and storm water impacts on the bluff, he said.

The recommendation was based on input from agency biologists and community feedback received at public meetings. Planners also considered other overnight camping possibilities in the area, specifically the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District’s plans to construct a campground near Community Park off Maxwelton Road. That plan was birthed in the wake of the 2015 closure at South Whidbey State Park and remains funding dependent.

Kline said he’s spoken with the district’s director, Doug Coutts, and that state parks is supportive of the effort.

“We’re going to do everything we can to help make sure there is camping opportunity here on South Whidbey,” he said.

State parks has struggled in recent years with funding, seeing massive reductions by the Legislature. In 2011, staffing levels at all the state parks on Whidbey except Deception Pass were cut about 60 percent, said Jon Crimmins, the area manager. The average of two rangers per park declined to three for the entire area, he said. Nevertheless, Crimmins said the closure is unrelated.

“It’s not a staffing issue, it’s the trees,” Crimmins said. “That’s 100 percent of the reason for closing.”

The campground was open for several years after the reduction, and managing the facility was tough but not impossible, he said.

“That’s not driving the decision,” he said.

The plan also addresses beach access at the park, another longtime headache for officials. Bluff erosion has been a problem for years, and parts of the trail and steps have been washed out for over one year. They were built almost a decade ago by community volunteers after erosion destroyed previous steps.

Like the campgrounds, Crimmins said restoring beach access isn’t a budgetary problem. The steps could be rebuilt, but the concern is they’d just wash out again.

“I don’t think it’s a financial issue, it’s a nature issue,” he said.

The CAMP plan recommends that officials work to reestablish beach access within the park, but it contains no timeline or directive to do so.

Other focuses of the document include Possession Point. Initially proposed for surplus, a classification that allows property to be transferred or sold a private entity, planners abandoned the proposal and are recommending the property remain as is. The decision, which followed a large public meeting last year where participants were overwhelmingly against the surplus option, is a huge relief to property advocates.

“I’m very happy,” Elisa Miller said. “I guess they (CAMP planners) were sincere. They really wanted to know what people thought. Possession Point, it was a really small piece, but they really listened.”

Miller said her only objection now is that Possession Point is not technically a state park — it’s a property. It’s also categorized as “underused” land, which she worries could leave it vulnerable to later surplus initiatives.

Kline, however, said the property can’t be surplussed or sold to a private property owner due to restrictions associated with the funds used to purchase the property years ago. The only major change that might occur there is the removal of an old house, which he says has fallen into disrepair. It’s not a historic structure, he said.

Finally, the tidelands in Useless Bay are being recommended for transfer — not surplus. They were acquired in 1947 with an intention of someday getting upland property that would provide access to the shoreline. That never happened and the tidelands remain difficult to access.

According to Crimmins, no resources are dedicated to the tidelands, that it’s largely used by kayakers and kite boarders.

Kline noted that there’s no plan for the property. Because it’s only being recommended for transfer, rather than surplus, it can’t be sold to a private owner. The only possibility is to pass it to another public agency, such as the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. They may be a more appropriate manager, he said, but it unlikely anything would happen soon.

“There’s a very good chance that we’re sitting here in 40 years talking about something else saying, ‘Oh yeah, Useless Bay,’ ” Kline said.